OVERVIEW: It's so easy to complain about student writing. It feels like a right and a privilege to do it when you work so hard at trying to help our students be better writers, readers and thinkers. Further, culturally, as (nearly) the first half of our semester has shown us, the inclination of literally everyone--teachers, employers, public-policy makers, parents--contribute in various ways to a narrative that writing has declined precipitously.
As we have discussed in class, there are two ways to react to this: you can say, as most folks do, that the only way to fix things is to "go back to basics"--whatever that means in that moment. Typically, however, it usually involves more testing and more correcting of error.
Composition and Rhetoric arise out of a moment in education when folks questioned if this was the way to go. Now, to be clear, it has not always been well-received and, if we consider current conversations about student writing skill, it would seem it has not reversed this enigmatic trend towards worse and worse writing. However, the field is also a hopeful one. We see this, most recently in the work of Inoue. But we can also see it going all the way back to 1980, during that restless time when Open Admissions created a new landscape in colleges and universities.
Basic Writing, as an area of teaching and scholarship, is the title given to courses that were essentially for those writers identified as not sufficiently prepared to take writing courses for credit. The concept has evolved over time to a greater and lesser extent depending on the institution. Community Colleges, for instance, still often offer these "remedial" classes, particularly for multilingual readers and writers. BSU got rid of its version of such a course in 2004 and replaced it with a 4 credit co-requisite model to support less resourced students. The Community College of Baltimore County has had an incredible impact on basic writing, pioneering the stretch model of writing instruction that extends the amount of time students spend in first year writing.
Before leaving our historical look at the field, I'd like for us to read from Mina Shaughessy's important work Error & Expectation. She was one of the first scholars who looked at this new landscape and said there are things we can do. She was a writing teacher at ground zero of Open Admissions, City University of New York. Her work was scene as groundbreaking at the time that it came out. Now, certainly, since that time, she's come under heavy fire for some of her ideas. But there has also been renewed interest in her work in the past year (Sadly she died from cancer not long after the publication of E & E).
POST: I started by the semester by saying that one way to flip the script on writing instruction is to change the narrative of "students are bad writers" to "writing is a hard skill to learn." In what ways does Shaughnessy speak to one or the other of these statements? In what ways does her discussion of "basic" writing speak to how we talk about writing instruction and error to day? And yet what seems forgotten from her argument in how we shape writing instruction?
torda & the 513s
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